NATO seeks limits on plan for nuclear disarmament

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

TALLINN, ESTONIA -- NATO's top official said Thursday that the alliance should take steps to support President Obama's ambitious nuclear disarmament agenda, but he made clear that there are limits -- specifically, that U.S. atomic weapons should not be removed from Europe.

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke as NATO foreign ministers discussed for the first time in more than a decade whether to get rid of the last remnants of the U.S. nuclear force that blanketed Western Europe during the Cold War.

Some European politicians see withdrawal of the roughly 200 remaining short-range arms as a relatively easy way to support Obama's campaign to achieve "a world without nuclear weapons." The European Parliament recently branded the American bombs a "strategic anachronism," with little military value, and Germany has led an effort to remove them. Obama has called for putting the weapons on the table in the next round of arms-reduction talks with Russia.

But some European officials -- particularly in former Warsaw Pact countries -- worry that eliminating the weapons could send the wrong signal to Russia or other potential antagonists. U.S. officials acknowledged that Rasmussen's feelings are widely shared in the alliance.

"There is now new wind in the sails when it comes to reducing nuclear weapons and nuclear risks, and I want to commend President Obama for this, because he is leading the way," Rasmussen said at a news conference, indicating that NATO could back some cuts in the short-range weapons. He said, however, that NATO's "core business" is to assure the alliance's members that they are protected.

"I do believe the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent," he said.

During a dinner with her NATO colleagues, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear that the United States is in no rush to remove the bombs. She echoed the traditional rationale for keeping them in Europe, saying it is "fundamental" for NATO to share nuclear responsibilities, according to excerpts of her remarks distributed by her office.

She also emphasized that any reductions should be linked to verifiable cuts in Russia's short-range nuclear weapons.

Advocates of withdrawing the weapons say they are vulnerable to theft by terrorists because of their relatively small size and the security gaps at European military bases. In addition, they argue that the U.S. military can provide security more effectively with its long-range ballistic missiles and weapons on submarines, which can respond quickly.

But a senior U.S. official acknowledged that there is a "widely shared feeling" among allies that "they are more comfortable knowing the nuclear weapons are in Europe" and not deployed offshore. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.

The arsenal of American short-range, or "tactical," nuclear weapons in Europe has shrunk from about 2,500 two decades ago. The remaining bombs are stored in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, analysts say. The weapons would be used by allies in wartime.

A NATO decision about the weapons is not expected until fall.

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